For the first time all season, USC football will enter the Rose Bowl with a deep running back rotation that is both firing on all cylinders and 100 percent healthy.
The Trojans have lived and died by the running game in 2016, which is a good thing when it has led to an eight-game winning streak heading into the Rose Bowl against Penn State. They’re averaging more than 200 yards rushing per game for the first time since 2005.
But for all of the successes, including four games of 250-plus yards in the second half of the season, USC hasn’t had its three primary backs both healthy and in form.
While Justin Davis was a world beater early on, Ronald Jones was in a funk.
While Jones put up gaudy numbers during the winning streak, both Davis and Aca’Cedric Ware were battling ankle injuries.
Davis’ high ankle sprain against Colorado in Week 6 only cost him three games, but it limited his ability through the end of the season and ultimately paved the way for sophomore Jones to seize full control of the starting job.
“To be honest, I was out there just trying to get by,” Davis said. “I just wanted to help my team as much as possible, but I knew I wasn’t where I needed or wanted to play at. But now I feel like, it’s the Rose Bowl, I’m feeling great. I’m feeling the best I’ve felt in months actually.”
In the three games before his injury, Davis was averaging 9.22 yards per carry. However, in USC’s final three regular season games, the senior averaged just 2.9 yards per. Now, two months later, it’s time for him to reclaim that early season form thanks to some welcome rest.
Offensive coordinator Tee Martin is happy to have his most experienced and reliable running back at full speed once more after running at closer to 85 percent. The difference has been noticeable during bowl preparation practices.
“He made one cut and I go, ‘okay, Justin is back,'” Martin said.
Even with Davis good to go, the Trojans still plan to lean on Jones as the No. 1 rotation.
For Jones, the game plan going into the Rose Bowl is to just keep chugging. He averaged 148.4 yards per game in the season’s final five games, making his early season struggles a distant memory.
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It came down to a mental adjustment, according to Davis. No more Ronald Jones-isms worrying about how socks fit, an overly tight helmet or allusions to Samson.
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It worked. Jones clicked. And despite becoming an every down back in lieu of injuries to others, he carried the running game further than the entirely healthy backfield had managed before.
So it raises one question. If USC could field a dominant run game without the Davis and Ware in top form, what could they do with them, alongside a peaking Jones?
There’s no better time to find out than in the Rose Bowl against a stout defense like Penn State’s.